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Muzaffar Al-Nawwab: In the Old Tavern

[Muzaffar Al-Nawwab. Image by Jamal Jum'a] [Muzaffar Al-Nawwab. Image by Jamal Jum'a]

[Muzaffar al-Nawwab (b. Baghdad, 1934) is one of Iraq’s most famous and influential poets. He studied literature in Baghdad and worked as a teacher. He joined the Iraqi Communist Party at a very early age and was imprisoned and tortured under the Ba’th. He left Iraq in 1970 and lived in exile until 2011 when he returned to Baghdad for a visit. Al-Nawwab is well known in Iraq and throughout the Arab world, especially among leftists and activist of various generations, for his powerful revolutionary poems and scathing invectives against Arab regimes and dictators. Banned in most Arab countries, his poems circulated widely from the 1970s onward on cassettes. They are widely available nowadays on the Internet. He is also considered one of the most innovative and influential Iraqi poets who composed in the spoken dialect. Although born to an aristocratic family in Baghdad, Al-Nawwab immersed himself in the dialect of southern Iraq in the 1960s and composed some of the most memorable poems in Iraqi collective memory, many of which were put to music and sung by famous contemporary singers. Except for a few editions of his early poems in the Iraqi spoken, Al-Nawwab, who shunned mainstream cultural circles and lived in various exiles for the last four decades, never published, or authorized, a collection of his own works. A critical edition, or any reliable printed diwan (there are many versions and unauthorized collections, in circulation) has yet to appear. “In the Old Tavern” is one of his most famous poems, composed (probably) in late 1970s. Al-Nawwab prefaced one of his famous recitals by saying that the obscenity of the political status quo exceeded the obscenity in his poems. Al-Nawwab’s health has deteriorated in recent years and he has not written any new poems. He lives in Beirut.”]


In the Old Tavern

Muzaffar al-Nawwab


The tavern

is not that far

What good is that?

You are like a sponge

Suckling on taverns

But never getting drunk


What is left of this night’s life

In the drunkards’ glasses

Saddens you

Why did they leave them?

Were they lovers?

Were they faggots like those at summit meetings?

Was it a prostitute

With no one in this tattered world?

Had you been here

You would have hidden her desire in your mythical jacket

Whispered warmly in her cold lungs:

Is the cold killing you?

What is killing me more is partly the warmth,

and partly the situation itself!

My lady, we are prostitutes just like you

Misery fornicates with us

False religion, false thought, and false bread and poems

Even the color of blood

is forged and made grey in funerals

And all the people approve

And the ruler is not one-eyed!

My lady, how can one be honorable

When the secret police stick their hands everywhere?

What is yet to come is even worse

We are put in the juice-maker

For oil to come out


Here is to you, to you, my lady!

Nothing of you is polluted except mortal flesh

Whereas some have sold everything

He defends all of the world’s causes

But flees from his own cause

I will piss on him and get drunk

Then piss on him and get drunk

Then you will piss on him

And we will both get drunk!


The tavern is crowded

With a generation you don’t know

A country you don’t know

A language, laughter, and things you don’t know

Except for the wine

After the first drink, it looks after you

It warms your cold legs

You don’t know where you met it long ago

Your head babbles between your hands:

Something painful like the buzzing of silence

Silence itself joins you and babbles along

You stare at all of life’s bottles

They are all empty

The waiter has turned off the lights many times

For you to leave

O how you love wine, Arabic, and the world

To strike a balance between passion and pomegranates

This one drink and I will leave your enchanted tavern

Don’t be mad Sir

The lover is enchanted

Fill it up

Until it overflows and spills onto the brown wood

How would you know

Why this slab is for wine

That one for a coffin

And the other for a billboard?

Fill it up in plain sight Sire

I will not leave your grand tavern before am blind drunk

The tiniest thing in this world intoxicates me

So imagine when it comes to a human


Oh Lord

I have accepted all things

Except humiliation

And having my heart caged in the Sultan’s palace

I was content that my lot in this world

Be like that of a bird


Oh Lord

Even birds have homelands

To return to

But I am still flying

Over this homeland

stretching from sea to sea

Prisons pressed against one another

One jailer huddling another


[Translated from the Arabic by Sinan Antoon. You can listen to the Arabic original here.

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